In 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq War a public school teacher in Indiana was using an officially approved Time Magazine for Kids curriculum to discuss current events. She was required to teach that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction along with other historical “facts” about the relationship between our two countries. The curriculum included a short story about anti-war protests. When one of her students asked her if she would ever take part in one of these demonstrations, she answered, “I honk for peace” when I drive by demonstrators with signs reading I Honk For Peace.
A small group of parents raised a ruckus. The teacher lost her job and ultimately her home. She took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear it, thus confirming the lower court decision:
. . . a teacher’s speech is a commodity that she sells to a school in exchange for a salary.
While this technically only applies to teachers in the 7th Circuit (Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin) it could, and probably would, be used as a precedent in other parts of the country.
Thousands of teachers will air President Obama’s speech in their classrooms, but in our current political environment they will need to walk on eggshells to avoid having their lives destroyed for doing so. An opportunity for meaningful civics education will be missed if teachers are cowed into silence by a few exercised parents.
In 1988, Ronald Reagan spoke directly to students. So did George H.W. Bush in 1991. In both cases, objections were raised, but no one was censored over it, let alone lost their jobs. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton all also spoke directly to students without controversy. Heck, George W. Bush was famously sitting in an elementary school classroom when the tragedy of 9/11 happened.
And now there’s a controversy over the president of the United States speaking to students? Really? And it’s such a big deal that teachers' livelihoods will be threatened over it? Really? Really? Already, entire school districts have succumbed to pressure and banned the president’s speech. What the hell is going on here? This is the elected leader of the free world we’re talking about, not some dangerous fringe figure with the magic powers to brainwash children through the television.
The only conclusion I can draw is that a noisy minority of our fellow citizens has suffered a psychotic break with reality. They are calling our president a Nazi, a socialist, a communist, a terrorist, and a race-hater, sometimes all in the same tirade. They are openly and threateningly carrying guns to places where he appears. They are even insisting that he isn’t really the president. As outright crazy as this is, our constitution protects their right to engage in all of this insanity.
But it does not protect their right to censor the president, especially when, by all accounts, the subject of his speech will be the universally accepted values of hard work, setting goals and staying in school. As ludicrous as it sounds, this is the message they want to censor.
Yet in many parts of the country they are successfully doing so. A frothy fringe of parents has been hammering school districts, administrators, and even teachers for weeks now. And frankly, I can’t blame them for giving in. They don’t want to lose their jobs and homes. Our public educators are in a bind. They cannot speak out without great risk.
Thankfully, we as parents are free to speak our minds. And even better, the courts have held that students do not sacrifice their free speech rights once the school bell rings. It’s up to us as parents and students to support our teachers. If you want to make sure your child has the opportunity to hear the president encourage them to work hard and stay in school, then let your school officials know about it. If your school is already planning to broadcast the address, then thank them for doing it. If a teacher makes the mistake of actually voicing an opinion, stand up for her.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, it’s clear that there are some very frightened people in this country. Change can be threatening. We have chosen a new political direction. The leader of the free world is now a man who might have been a slave only a few generations ago.
These sad people are so afraid that when they look at the president, they see a boogeyman from whom they must protect their children. They deserve our pity, but that doesn’t mean we have to let their irrational fears win the day.
Now is a time to stand up for our public educators. If a single one of them loses her job, it will be our fault.